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ULM

Reviewed by Herb Levy

ULM (Huch & Friends/RnR Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 45-75 minutes; $39.99)

 

In the Middle Ages, the German city of Ulm experienced its heyday as a center of European trade. In this new game from Gunter Burkhardt, players attempt to recapture that city’s glory by spreading their influence from area to area, trading goods, even completing a cathedral, to amass enough Victory Points to become the most powerful in the city that gives the game its name: Ulm.huc_15_6580_Ulm_Auflage_A_2016_SO.indd

In this quest for glory, all players begin with “seals” (counters in their chosen color) along with color matching family crests, a barge (placed on the first space of the Danube River where this is room for all), 2 coins and 2 “Ulm sparrows”. (Sparrows were the symbol of the city and these sparrow chits will come in handy as the game progresses.) One seal is placed on the board’s perimeter scoring track at “5”. The game’s deck of cards is placed in their allotted spot next to the 3-D Cathedral (that you have to put together). In addition, all players randomly select one action tile. Action tiles represent “nobles” willing to lend their assistance and these tiles create the engine that powers the game.

There are five different types of action tiles: Money, Clear Away, Card, River and Seal. Nine of them (1 Card and 2 each of the others) are randomly placed to form a 3 x 3 grid on the board. One of each type of tile is put on the “loading  dock”. The rest of the tiles are dropped into a draw bag. Ten rounds make for an entire game and each round follows the same procedure.

The active player draws ONE action tile from the bag. This tile is then added to that 3 x 3 grid so that one tile is pushed out of a row. The active player may then do the THREE actions left in that row (the action symbolized by the tile just drawn AND the two others remaining in that row of the grid.) But this luck of the draw can be mitigated by playing one of your Ulm sparrows. The sparrow gets returned to supply and the player may CHOOSE any tile from the “loading dock” to use instead. During his turn, a player may play ONE card he has previously gotten.

Money tiles grant coins to the player, 1 coin per tile. The Clear Away action allows you to collect the action tiles so important in acquiring cards. As the grid gets used, action tiles get pushed out of it. The Clear Away action allows you to scoop up ALL pushed out tiles on 1 edge of the grid (which could be as many as three). If you manipulate the grid so that TWO Clear Away tiles are part of your turn, you can take tiles from TWO edges and could, conceivably come away with six!

Each Seal action allows you to spend 2 coins and place one of your seals in the area bordering the current location of your barge. Each area bestows a privilege such as being able to collect coins, advance your barge, pick up a “descendant” (which gives you an advantage that may be used for the rest of the game) and more including picking a Coat of Arms tile.

If the Coat of Arms privilege is used, a player randomly draws two Crest tokens and chooses one. These Crest tokens display one of the areas of the city and reward players with Victory Points. Most, however, not only allow immediate VPs but also allow a player to collect VPs when ANYONE (even that player) places a seal in that particular area. (To show “control” of that area, that token is replaced by one of that player’s family crests.) That player also places one of his seals in the matching space bordering the 3 x 3 grid. From that point on, every time any player pushes a tile out of the grid and next to that player’s seal, the player owning that seal receives an Ulm sparrow as a bonus.ulm2

A Card tile allows a player to either hand in two action tiles in his possession to draw a card {or hand in two IDENTICAL tiles to be able to draw 2 cards and keep 1) OR play an additional card this turn. The River action allows you to advance your barge one space along the Danube. This is important for two reasons: you may only place seals in areas that border your barge and the farther along the Danube you are, the more Victory Points you will score at the game’s conclusion.

The 33 cards in the game come in three varieties – Cathedral, Trade, and Chronicle cards – and all of them have a top and a bottom benefit. If played for the top benefit, the card is discarded and the benefit immediately applied. If played for the bottom benefit, the card is placed in an array in front of the player, ready to be scored at the end of the game. For example, each Cathedral card is worth 3 VPs but manage to collect a set of the three different types of Cathedral cards (in effect, building the Cathedral) and that set will add 18 VPs to your score. Trade cards work in similar fashion while Chronicle cards, when played for end game scoring, give you conditions to meet that grant VPs if achieved.

At the end of 10 rounds, to the running total of VPs generated by played cards, seal placement, family crests and descendants, points are added for Ulm Sparrows (1 per sparrow), the position of your barge on the Danube River (which can add or subtract as much as 11 points) and cards played in your array. The player with the highest total wins!

Like the busy, bustling city of Ulm, this game has a lot of moving parts. There is nothing too complicated but there is a lot going on. At its core, the game combines set collection (using those very important cards to maximize Victory Point production) with area control (as players compete for privileges and Victory Points throughout the areas of the city). That would be enough but, to that, the movement of your barge – which determines just where you can place your seals as well as adding – or subtracting – points from your final score – adds still more to the mix. Once you have mastered the basics, you can also add events. These events, one in effect each round, modify the rules for that turn. As in  Stefan Feld’s In the Year of the Dragon, the upcoming event is also revealed so that players can prepare (as best they can) to make the most of the upcoming modifications.

The strength of Ulm lies in its amalgam of yin-yang choices. Sparrows allow you modify the luck element of the action tile draw (but at a cost of 1 VP each), seals allow you to spread influence, gain privileges and Victory Points but you are limited to only 12 placements all game, card play can be done for immediate gain or long range benefit, your barge allows seal placement but will cost you VPs unless you advance it significantly ahead – and all of this powered by what players do on that 3 x 3 grid. With the constant shifting of tiles in the grid, players may be prone to a bit more “analysis” than I prefer since, especially with more than 2 players, the grid configuration will change greatly from turn to turn. Even if you have a “grand plan”, you need to be able to think tactically if you are going to be victorious.

Graphically, the game benefits from quality artwork by Michael Menzel although the board tends to be a bit “busy” with lots of graphics vying for attention. The rulebooks are slick papered, full color and multi-lingual. I say rulebooks because the game comes with TWO of them: a basic rule book (which can get you started right away) and an “Ulm Chronicle” (containing specifics on the various cards and privileges available along with a brief history of the city itself).

Ulm is an ambitious undertaking from Gunter Burkhardt. Because of the “juggling act” in handling the multitude of choices each turn presents, this is, most definitely, not a “gateway game”. Rather it is a game that rewards players who can think on their feet and be flexible, “bending” the everchanging assortment of tiles in the grid to your will.  As such, it is a nicely produced and solid game of tactical challenges that captures the flavor of the city, making you want to spend some quality time with this quality game of Ulm.- – – – – – – Herb Levy


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